Thursday, 21 September 2017

The Theatre


Today I had an operation on my finger.  Let's not get too carried away with the seriousness of the operation, it was something very simple and the length of the operation itself was measured in minutes rather than hours.  It was only the second time I've ever had an operation; the previous one was to remove all my wisdom teeth and was done under a general anaesthetic.

And so today I was just having a local - more on that in a minute - which gave me an opportunity I may never get again - the chance to actually see inside an operating theatre and talk to the surgeon whilst he's poking around inside my finger.

My contact with the medical professional has been thankfully quite sporadic throughout my life.  That's not due to any stereotypical male reluctance to go and see a doctor but simply due to good fortune meaning that serious medical conditions have thus far eluded me.  It was the first time I'd had those arrows drawn on in marker that you see on the TV when the surgeon is reminding himself which bit to chop away at...

I was amazed, for instance, that temperature isn't taken by sticking a thermometer in your mouth anymore.  Only hours after marvelling at such wonderful devices did I Google to find that mercury medical thermometers have been unavailable to buy in the UK for eight years.

The last time I went into an operating theatre I was unconscious, but this time I just walked in and plonked myself down on the bed in the middle under the lights.  I stuck my arm out on the little board at the side for the purpose and turned my head so I could watch what the surgeon was doing.  It's amazing how many people have had a physical reaction at the thought that I'd watch what he was doing whilst he was cutting into my finger and poking around inside, but it was an opportunity I wasn't going to miss.

The second thing, after the thermometer, to astound me were the LED lights which despite being three feet above me, were so powerful that I could feel the heat on my hand where they were directed.  I was surprised that LEDs could do that.

Just before starting, the surgeon said to me - "Right, this first bit is going to be the worst part of your day by a mile".  Then he gave me the local anaesthetic injections into the base of my finger.   Usually, whenever you get an injection, the doctor will say "you'll just feel a small scratch".  This has irritated me for years now, as I've had quite a few injections and blood tests done, so they could say "this will feel like a needle going in" and I'd know exactly what to expect.  But it was noteworthy that this time around he didn't say that; he explicitly told me it was going to hurt. A lot.

I'd had previous experience of this when, a few years ago, I'd had a series of steroid injections into my elbow after a bout of tennis elbow.  I asked the GP before he did it - "will this hurt?".  His reply: "Do you want the truth or do you want me to tell you it won't hurt?".

That first steroid injection made my arm feel like it was on fire, but was still nothing compared with the pain of having anaesthetic injected deep at the base of my finger.   I'm sure it doesn't compare with childbirth - the usual benchmark of just how painful things can get - but it sure wasn't pleasant.  But once my wincing at the initial pain had subsided, the surgeon then said - "now your finger will feel like it's going to explode." and he was right.

I find anaesthetic quite intriguing.  I've had local anaesthetic before for dental work (nowhere near as painful as this) but never had an entire finger numbed.  There was something rather surreal about watching him cut open the side of my finger and poke about inside whilst not being able to feel anything at all.  It made it feel like it wasn't my finger, in some strange sense.   Once the surgery was over, and before the anaesthetic had worn off, I tried a few experiments.

Don't worry, I didn't try stabbing myself or anything.  The most interesting was to rest four fingers from that hand on the table.  Although all four fingers were on the table, the lack of feeling from my ring finger made it feel like it wasn't on the table; even if I looked directly at my hand, my brain was telling me that my ring finger was lifted on the table.  It just goes to show that our sense of where parts of our body are in relation to each other relies as much on exteroception as it does on proprioception.

Today brought into focus that fact that I know very little about biology and anatomy in comparison with my knowledge of say physics or chemistry.  The surgeon simply pulled the two sides of the wound together and effectively tied them together.  Remarkably quickly, they'll stick themselves together and within weeks, there'll be relatively little sign that the skin had ever been rent apart.  I have genuinely no idea how that process works at all.  I know there's something to do with collagen being laid down as a framework on which cells are then placed, but how does the body "know" that there's work to be done?  How does it know the skin needs repair at that point?

The evolutionary advantages of self-healing are so obvious that it's no surprise that such a complex process exists, but what were the evolutionary steps on the way?  The ability to completely repair a hole in the skin wouldn't have popped out of nowhere in a (metaphorical) instant.

I didn't feel I could ask the surgeon that, but beforehand he did ask me whether I would rather he describe what he's doing, or whether I'd rather not know.  Of course I wanted to know.  It was like having my own documentary about the inside of the end of a finger.  Except it was the most personal documentary in the world because I was the only one watching and it was my finger. How cool is that?

You'd think it'd be hard to relax then there's a man prodding about in your finger with metal things, but actually I found it relaxing enough to even attempt some humour...

"I've put a dressing on your finger, but it's not very well attached so if it falls off when you get back to your room, ask the nurse for another one"


"I presume you mean the dressing not the finger..?"


The reply was a dead pan "Yes. That is correct"


At least he said it with a smile ;-)

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Room 101

I hold myself account to a rule of being only positive online, but I'm going to allow myself one post on here which is slightly more negative.

Recently, I've caught a few episodes of Room 101 and it got me thinking what I'd banish to Room 101 if I had the chance.  Picking things such as "poverty" or "war" would be very worthy but would frankly say very little about me and given that this is all but artifice, there seems like utility in picking things so important.

So forgive me a little indulgence , and here are the ten things I'd banish to Room 101 and remove from the world if I could.

1. People who get in the way

Maybe this particular choice is what inspired the whole post, as I did get inwardly quite wound up by a woman in Boots last night who was aimlessly wandering the aisles wearing a a large backpack, wearing headphones and eating a banana oblivious to all the people she was blocking from walking past.

But it's not just in Boots; pretty much everywhere will people think nothing of stopping immediately atop an escalator to "have a bit of a think about which direction to go" or choose the most obstructive place possible in the supermarket to gather with their trolleys and "have a bit of a chat".

...or my particular pet hate - groups of people who walk as many a breast as will fill the pavement and either walk slowly meaning you want to overtake but can't or walk towards you in the same manner leaving you nowhere to go.

I get it that some people walk more slowly than others, or sometimes people want to stop and have a chat but it wouldn't hurt to think twice about whether you're in the way before doing it, surely?

2. Blokey racism 

One of the most pernicious things to arise in the past few years has been the idea of the "blokey racist".   Racism has always been around, and perhaps it always will be. All sorts of bigotry have long been dismissed as "just a bit of banter" but recently, there's been the idea that it's OK for politicians and the media to say racist things because "they're only saying what everyone is thinking".

The worst proponent of this, and a person I individually blame for much of the rise of this evil trend is Nigel Farage.  He says racist things on a regular basis; there's no doubt in my mind that he is xenophobic and racist and yet we're supposed to think it's a OK because he does it whilst smoking a fag and drinking a pint.

Differences in political opinion are what drive debate, and debate can drive progress, so I'm all for giving a platform to people with whose views I disagree.
However, there's a line beyond which an expressed view is not longer valid political debate and is simply offensive rhetoric.  Thanks to the things he says, and how he expresses them, Nigel Farage should be banished from our media and ignored, and yet somehow he seems to have become the jolly smiling face of racism and appears on TV and in the media more often than people who could actually make a decent contribution to society.

There was even talk of him being rumoured to do Strictly this year, and nowhere did I see anyone saying "hang on, but isn't he that notorious xenophobe?". So let's stop pretending that racism is a valid political viewpoint and call it what it is.  And let's stop giving racists a platform.

3. Men wearing slip on shoes with tassels on them

Come on.  It's just ridiculous.  Stop it.

4. Dan Brown books


I used to say I had nothing against Dan Brown personally; I used to say I just didn't like his books.  ]
They are unmitigated rubbish and if they didn't exist then all the minutes people spend reading them could instead by spent reading something with some merit.

And then I learned the awful truth.  Dan Brown thinks his books are good.

I was reading about him one day online (don't ask why) and came across an interview in which he said - paraphrasing - that people dislike him because they don't understand what he's doing in his books.

At that point, my dislike of the books spread slightly to become a distaste for him, too.  I felt slightly insulted that he was suggesting that my dislike of his books was because I didn't understand what he's doing.

I understand exactly what he's doing.  He's taking badly-formed characters and paper thin plot lines and milking it for as much money as he can - and that's quite a lot by all counts.  I don't begrudge that of anyone, I just wish he were a little more honest in admitting that's what he's doing.

5. My PE teachers at school


A great teacher can set you up for life.  I attribute my love of maths and science to some great teachers at secondary school, and my love of reading to a particular English teacher who I can remember specifically taught me how to look for subtext and how to interpret words.  I can remember that the feeling of having my eyes opened to books in a way they'd never been before and how suddenly reading became so much more pleasurable than I'd ever previously experienced.

And then at the other end of the scale were the PE teachers.  I was not a fit and active kid.  I was ungainly and uncoordinated.  I remember once being paired in piggy-back races with another kid of similar (large) size. Not having the strength to carry him, we collapsed on the floor and I quite badly hurt my toe.

I was left in no doubt by the PE teachers that I was to blame for that.  They even wrote to my parents to say so.

And so it carried on. The teachers played a part in battering every ounce of physical confidence out of me as much as the rest of the class.  Whenever there was a new complicated move to be demonstrated in the gym, they would always ask me to do it.

Why wouldn't they?  It kept all the sporty kids in the rugby team amused, and they mattered more than I did, obviously.

And so over time, I withdrew from PE at school.  The discomfort of having to put myself through that torture was starting to affect everything else I was doing at school, and the fact I was taken out of PE seemed to make me even more of a target for the teachers' jokes.

If I had to walk back through the events in my life which contributed to just how insecure I feel about my body and my fitness, an unmissable staging post would be the time I had what little confidence I had deliberately deflated.  I'd just done a cross country run and not come last.  I crossed the like actually a little pleased with myself.  The comforting words of encouragement from the head of PE as I walked past him just beyond the line were simply to tell me I could really do with a sports bra.

If I could remove those PE teachers from my life and replace them with teachers as supportive and engaged as the English teacher was, I'd be fitter, healthier and ultimately happier than I am today.

6. Fragrance adverts on the TV

Fragrances are an odd product.  Unlike something you can see, or something you can hear, it's not particularly easy to demonstrate on TV.  The only way to demonstrate the problem is to have those ladies who stand around at the front of department stores squirting fragrance onto anyone who doesn't perform an evasive manoeuvre quickly enough when trying to dash from the door to the lift to get up to the home furnishings floor.

And so anyway, on TV, fragrances are demonstrated by trying to imagine an environment or lifestyle which is likely to appeal to us, and suggesting that in some way it's redolent of the fragrance.  Usually the scenarios played out involve attractive people with some flimsy excuse why they don't have many clothes on.  Quite often they're in water, or flailing around on a bed, but in some cases - the one where the guy sits in the chair wearing nothing but a cup of tea springs to mind - people just take their clothes off for no good reason.

I guess ultimately they're trying to say "if you make yourself smell nice, then you may have more sex" but they can't say that because it's probably not true and certainly not provable so instead they just fling toned naked people around the screen in the hope that we pop to Boots and spend fifty quid on a bottle of smelly stuff.

7.  Boxing

I am not a great fan of sport in general, but some people are and that's grand.  Largely sport is just about running around and either jumping, kicking or throwing things skillfully.  I takes a lot of dedication and determination to get to the top in any sport.  But all those sports are pretty harmless.  There may be the odd sprain or strain on the way, but nobody tends to die in the course of it.

But boxing isn't harmless.  Boxing is about hitting someone hard enough that they become too physically injured to continue.  You can argue that there's a lot of skill and artistry involved, and I don't deny that.  But would we consider taking all that armour off people doing fencing and giving them really sharp swords and telling them to hack enough off each other until one person has to stop.

Of course we wouldn't.
That'd be barbaric, regardless of the swordsmanship involved.

8. Time


Not all time, obviously, as that wouldn't leave us with much - but I'd quite like to remove some bits of time.

Today I had braces fitted, and I'm only a few hours into wearing them and already thinking "is it nearly done yet?" when in reality I'm going to have the bloody things on my teeth for at least two years.

Wouldn't it be great if I could press a big "fast forward" button and just do the fun stuff for the next two years.  I don't mind two years of dinner parties, time with friends and holidays but I don't really want to have to have two years worth of ironing with the braces on.

Of course, the braces would still need the time to do their work, so maybe it's me who's being removed from time in this case rather than the other way around.  Where's a physicist when you need one..?

9. Small talk


When I'm in a shop and I'm trying to buy a bread roll or a potato peeler I'm quite happy have a bit of a back and forth about the product and exchange the requisite pleases and thankyous as we complete the transaction.

But I have no particular desire to talk about the weather, or the shop next door, or the wedding of the daughter of the person serving me.

It's not that I'm in a particular hurry, I just don't find making small talk with strangers particularly socially comfortable and it feels unnecessary when I'm just buying a cup of coffee.  And believe me, people selling coffee are the worst; especially when they know your name.

10. The year 2016


Brexit.  Bowie dying.  President Trump.  Prince dying.  All those other great people dying.

Can't we just forget it happened, try again and if providence will let us keep Bowie, Prince, Victoria Wood and all the others we'll promise to think more carefully before voting in elections...






Friday, 11 August 2017

What's in a name?

I was in Starbucks the other morning, which isn't that unusual.    It's also perfectly normal that they ask your name these days and write it on the cup.

I've never been overly comfortable with the implicit intimacy of someone calling me by name when they are just selling me a coffee, but I've learned to live with it since Starbucks made giving your name a mandatory condition of getting a coffee.

But this morning the thing which particularly rankled me was not - as you may be suspecting - the smiley face he drew next to my name, but rather what the guy serving me did with my name after I'd given it to him.

I'm used to being upsold.  In WHSmith they seem to have moved half the the stock of the store next to the till to try to sell you for a pound whenever you buy some stationery, and in Starbucks I'm quite used to being asked if I'd like a muffin with my morning coffee.  This morning though, the guy used my name in a very friendly tone when trying to sell me a muffin.  It felt uncomfortable and jarring, as though I'd given my name for one purpose and he'd used it for another.  I'd given it to be used to identify my coffee when it arrived at the other end of the counter but he'd taken this as licence to become "all friendly" with me, and try to cajole me into buying a muffin.

I've always had an uneasy and slightly mutually suspicious relationship with my name.  I never really liked the name "Daniel".  Not for me, anyway - I don't find it a particularly ugly or unpleasant name on other people, but never felt it quite fitted me.  I was "Danny" to some people during my teenage years and early twenties, but gradually became "Dan" to pretty much everyone.

I've always found it quite irritating to have someone else dictate to me what I should be known as.  Of course, my parents chose my name when I wasn't able to and at least they chose better than they could've done - I believe that my Mum wanted to call me "Blue" at one point.  But since I've been old enough to know what I'd like to be called, I don't think it's unreasonable of people to respect it.

The catalyst for me changing my name legally to just "Dan" was something quite small, and if I tell the story in isolation it sounds like a large step to take in response to a small annoyance, but in reality I'd been frustrated by being known as "Daniel" for a while, given that it wasn't the name I ever used if given a choice.

At work, the IT team insisted that my email address and company directory entry had to be my full name, and so as I started to work with more people outside my immediate team and even outside the company, more people started referring to me as "Daniel" and I didn't really feel that I could say "actually, please call me Dan" to everyone all the time.  And so I legally dropped the "-iel" from my name.

It was quite a relief, and now all of my official documentation is "Dan" and I'm only ever "Daniel" when someone makes an assumption about my name.  Which people do. I don't really blame them for it.

Generally, if someone (like my new company) makes that assumption, they are quick to correct it, but I did run into some trouble with my GP's surgery.  It's now six years since I first told them that my name is "Dan" and not "Daniel" and just two weeks ago I picked up a prescription with the name "Daniel McNeil" written across the top.  It doesn't really matter too much, but I asked the receptionist to correct it on their system and in return got something of a lecture on the difference between a legal name and a preferred name, and how my GP had to use my legal name.  But then again, the receptionists at GP surgeries are never the most helpful people in my experience.  And in any case, I have an NI number which identifies me uniquely, which my name obviously doesn't - as attested by the number of tweets I used to get for this guy on Twitter.

But whatever someone calls me, I have always had a distaste for people using my name to presume an intimacy which isn't there.  If I call the electricity board to talk about a meter reading, I don't see why the person I'm speaking to and I must start to call each other by name.  It's not that I want to be rude to them, but the whole exchange of names - and even worse then they start to ask "how's your day been so far?" - seems like unnecessary wasting of time.  It's no disrespect to either of us if we speak about the meter reading and then hang up.

I think this general distaste for presumed closeness which underpins my dislike of the Starbucks habit of asking for my name and then drawing a smiley face next to it on the cup.  On second thoughts, maybe that smiley face did annoy me after all...



Sunday, 23 July 2017

Putting a hook on a coconut

This morning, I spent quite a lot of time attaching a brass hook into a coconut.

It's harder than you think.  I tried nails and screws at first but I actual managed to bend a couple of fairly chunky nails whilst trying to hammer them into the coconut, and trying to get a screw in proved to be futile.

I got the end of the coconut quite easily, although it did involve using a fairly chunky saw.  Usually, I'd take the end off completely and then thread some wire into the interior of the coconut through the three black weak spots on the end to hang it, but given I managed to get the end off whilst leaving the flesh intact, I thought it may be interesting to hang it up via something attached to the outside.

In the past, we've had to resort to using power tools to get into a coconut.  That depiction of a coconut hitting the ground, gently bouncing and splitting open in two which was in - I think - a Bounty commercial a few years ago is nothing but a lie.  Getting into a coconut is tough.

And so as I was hammering away, pointless bending nail after nail whilst trying to get one to stick into the coconut, it got me to wondering why on earth we eat coconuts at all.  A long, long time ago someone must've said "I wonder whether the inside of that thing which is really hard to get into is poisonous..?" and hacked their way into a coconut and tried it.  As far as I know, there aren't many animals which eat ripe coconuts in the wild (I think it's mostly insects getting into them before they are ripe) and so I doubt a person watched an animal cracking one open to get inspiration.

Truth is, I don't even really like coconut.  The flavour is OK, but I find the texture quite unpleasant.  There's something a little bit cloying about the flecks of plastic-y flesh you get in coconut which I can't bear to eat.  I don't even like Bountys.

Having said that, coconut cream is one of the best ways I've found to avoid using dairy and tomatoes when making a curry; it makes a great base for the sauce.  Thankfully it doesn't have that weird textural thing going on and tends to disappear into the spices and other flavours which infuse throughout a good curry.

And so, why was I putting a hook on a coconut?  Especially if I wasn't planning to eat the coconut myself.

Well, it's all for the birds, you see.  I read last year that wild birds rather like coconut.  So we tried cutting the end of a coconut and hanging it up, and it went surprisingly quickly.  We tried it several times, having to move from tying them up with string to using metal wire because our plucky squirrels became quite adept at quickly biting through the wire and then eating the coconut on the ground.  In fact our last coconut ended up falling to the ground when a squirrel launched itself from a tree onto the coconut, only to find that the coconut's attachment wasn't strong enough to take the weight of the squirrel too.  Don't worry, the squirrel was fine.  It ate some coconut and then ran off.

Unusually, that coconut was last seen being carried away by a fox in the middle of the night on CCTV.  What a fox is planning to do with a coconut we shall never know, but did appear to carry it away quite proudly.

In the end I resorted to using one of the little black spots at the end of the coconut, and getting a small hole in there into which I managed to screw a brass hook.  It's not ideal, as the opening of the coconut will point downwards once the birds have pecked through the initial layer of flesh, but realistically the coconut will be on the ground being eaten by squirrels at that point, anyway...


Friday, 7 April 2017

Dipping a toe into hot water

I don't usually go near controversial topics.  I keep it light and fluffy and talk about how badly designed toilets are or sometimes about nothing at all.  But today, I'm going to turn a little bit serious and talk about women.  

The thing is, I can feel that even reading that there's been a sharp intake of breath amongst some people reading this.

So, on LinkedIn yesterday I recounted something which happened to me a few years ago.  It's a true story, and I gave only the highlights in a quick status update.  Here it is...

A few years ago, I met a recruiter for coffee.  During the conversation over coffee, he made one or two remarks about a woman who walked into the coffee shop which I thought were inappropriate remarks. 
I didn't say anything at the time, but never worked with the recruiter to either represent me, or to hire for me in any of the roles I've been in since. 
My only regret is that I didn't tell him why.  It feels a little bit too late to say something now, but I wish I'd said at the time that I wouldn't be using him, and why.   
He still calls every six months or so to see how I'm doing and whether he can help with hiring in my team.
It's a dangerous assumption that just because you're speaking with another man, you'll get away with making "laddish" comments about a woman's appearance.   
Those couple of comments have cost that recruiter quite a lot of roles over the years...

It's a brief account of coffee I had with a recruiter a few years ago, back in a previous job.  Meeting recruiters for coffee comes as part of the territory when you're a manager with a team.   You get to know some recruiters across the years, and will tend to stick with them as they move between companies, but there are always new ones who call out of the blue, buy you coffee and explain why you should start using them to fill your roles.  Quite often it comes to nothing, but sometimes you make a new relationship.

And so I was having coffee with a recruiter somewhere, and we were making the normal small-talk at the beginning of the meeting.  "What did you do at the weekend?" "Whereabouts do you live?" - all that kind of fluff that British people tend to start business meetings with.  In the midst of this initial flurry, a woman walked into the coffee shop and the recruiter stared at her, and then made a couple of comments to me about how she looked, with particular reference to her breasts.

I remember feeling uncomfortable with his remarks at the time, but for various reasons I never spoke up to say anything.  I just carried on with the conversation, said goodbye and then never followed up to introduce that recruiter into the process of where I was working at the time.  He still calls me every six months or so to see how I'm getting on.  I've never signed up to use him for hiring - either to represent me when I was looking for a new role, or when I'm managing a team and looking to hire some people into the team.  The truth is, I never will use him.  But I've never plucked up the courage to tell him that.

For the moment, though, let's wind back to the initial incident, and then we'll come back to today and the reactions I received to my post.

Whenever I am speaking to someone in a professional capacity, I am representing my company and they are representing theirs.   So if someone I'm speaking to professionally says something which I find objectionable, for me to call them out on it is to do so on behalf of the company, not just me.  That's something I'd be wary of doing, even if it's something as obviously unacceptable as uninvited sexual comments about a woman.  At the time I was a few years earlier on in my career in management, and I don't think I was quite as sure of myself as I am now.  And so I smiled politely and moved on with the conversation.   I think it's worth making clear that I have absolutely no doubt that the management of the company I worked for at the time would've backed me had I said something; my lack of confidence was in myself rather than in them.

The second reason I didn't say anything was more personal.  I identify unashamedly as a feminist these days, but that's not always been the case.  That's not to say that I've ever actively engaged in nor supported the subjugation of women, but it was something I hadn't really thought about.   Growing up as a white man, the fact that racism and sexism still run through daily life is something which can quite easily pass you by.  And it's to my own shame that I thought that as long as I wasn't being sexist or racist myself, that was enough.

My view changed when I asked a few questions of people I know well enough to speak openly with.  I read a few things which told me just how prevalent sexism still is, and I realised just how naive I'd been.  And so I asked a few women in my life for their own experiences.  I can point to those couple of days as precisely the time when I went from ignorance to anger to determination to help change things.    As a man you have to look to find sexism; as a woman it finds you every day.  It changes the way you walk to the shops to avoid the men on the building site who may whistle at you.  It affects how you feel about taking your car in for service because you're sick of being patronised by the mechanics.  It affects how confident you may feel in applying for a job because the company website feels "a bit blokey".    I can imagine that a woman reading this now will be surprised that this isn't bloody obvious to everyone.  But if you're a man reading this and think I'm overstating things, then talk to some women you know and trust, and ask them to tell you honestly what daily life is like for them.

And so back to the recruiter.  Of course, he didn't say the things loudly enough for the woman to hear.  He had presumed that because he was talking to another man, he could find common ground in ogling women. (Although it's not the point here, I find that quite ironic for another obvious reason, but moving on...)
But I'm sure she noticed him staring at her chest as she walked towards the counter.  I'm sure she noticed she was being watched and judged.

After my post on LinkedIn, quite a few people have told me that I should say something to him next time I speak with him.   But it's going to take effort, as I know it's not going to be easy.  It would've been much easier to say something at or close to the time.  But we are where we are, and I can't go back in time.  My issue is that to me this was something I recall clearly.  To him, it was probably just another meeting which didn't go anywhere and his comments are probably so common-place to him that he won't even recall making them.

The interesting thing isn't what people said in public, though; it's the private reaction I got to my post.  It was three-fold.

Firstly, I got a few messages of support.  People sharing similar stories and saying I did the right thing.  Although a few people also posted those messages in public, and much as they are welcome, they aren't the most interesting response.

Secondly, I got the expected messages telling me that I had over-reacted.  I had at least ten messages - some from people I know and some I don't - telling me that I'm being unfair, and that I shouldn't judge someone on the basis of a few comments made as an aside in the middle of a conversation.  All of these messages were from men, of course.

Thirdly, and perhaps most interestingly, are the number of people who've got in touch to say "were you talking about me? If so, let me explain... you misunderstood me...".  You'd be surprised how many people have got in touch to say this.

I've no intention of naming and shaming.  I'm going to park this and move on now.  I shall leave you with the door policy of a bar in Iceland.  It pretty much applies to who I invite into my life...




Added 10th April 2017:

A little postscript, which I guess I could've seen coming...

After having to spend far-too-much-of-my-time today deleting the more abusive and, shall we say, "unhelpful" comments from the post on LinkedIn, and reading and deleting the similar private messages I've received telling me that, amongst other things "I am only jealous because he saw her first" and "I am only angry because the recruiter fancied her and didn't fancy me" I've deleted the original comment on LinkedIn.

Monday, 20 February 2017

The pain of writing

A little while ago, I wrote about how I have difficult pronouncing a particular consonant.  Many people reading this have probably never heard me speak and so presumed that I had some hugely-apparent speech defect whereas the reaction from people who know me was generally that they had never even noticed which letter I have the problem with.   Fear of feeling self-conscious whenever I speak meant that I never did tell them which letter it was. I still avoid words which start with this particular letter if I have to do public speaking.

Which leads me to wonder if anyone has ever noticed the way I hold a pen.  I am generally right-handed (although I can play pool equally well either way around, amongst other things) and so my strange way to hold a pen isn't an adaption to prevent my left hand trailing over the wet ink as I move across the page. Maybe it's something to do with the fact that my thumbs will bend to a right-angle backwards, but won't bend forwards more than a few degrees...


For years, I presumed that everyone holds a pen as I do.  I love writing with a fountain pen and the tip of my little finger would quite often end up covered in ink; I presumed that happened to everyone.  I didn't really take much notice of how other people hold pens.



Recently, though, my pen holding has started to cause a problem.  On my right ring finger I started to get a little lump in the pad at the tip.  It was tiny to start with - maybe 3mm in diameter.  Recently I've been writing a lot more and it's definitely got bigger.  I write at least a journal entry every day and recently when I wrote a short work of fiction I wrote the first draft of that with a fountain pen on unlined paper.  But the lump in my finger has got considerably bigger.  Bigger to the point that I'm likely to have surgery in the near future to have it removed.

And so, I've been trying to teach myself how to hold a pen differently.  It's much harder than you would imagine.  When I was a teenager, I once tried to teach myself to write with my left hand and that didn't go particular well; I presumed this would be much easier.  I pride myself on having neat handwriting.  It's very rounded and flowing.  My Dad used to have incredibly neat handwriting and as I was growing up, the importance of neat writing was emphasised a lot.  So although I can make legible writing holding the pen between my thumb and index finger it's not as neat as I'd like it to be; I expect that's going to take longer to crack...

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Les gerbilles se sont echappées!

Récemment, nous avons acheté une maison de campagne et nous y passons quelques jours chaque semaine avant de retourner à notre pied-à-terre Londonien.  

Les cochons-d ’Inde voyage avec nous à chaque fois.  Au début, elles n’aimaient pas cela, la cage étant liée, dans leurs esprits, aux voyages chez le vétérinaire et l’indignité qu’elles y subissaient.  Mais quelque mois plus tard, elles avaient embrassé la routine et leurs deux foyers.
En été, les cochons-d ‘Inde habitent dans une dépendance mais en hiver nous mettons leur clapier à la véranda.  La véranda est loin d’être luxueuse mais elle a un toit et du chauffage et constitue un refuge hors pair.

Nous avons également trois gerbilles mais celles-ci restent à la campagne même quand nous allons à Londres parce qu’elles peuvent très bien se débrouiller toute seules pendant deux ou trois jours.  Elles demeurent dans un vivarium en verre surmonté d’une cage en métal.  Les gerbilles a l’état sauvage vivent dans des galeries souterraines ; aussi les nôtres peuvent-elles, a l’intérieur de leur cage, creuser librement des tunnels dans le sable.  Elles passent tout leur temps dans ce labyrinthe à l’abri de la lumière et ne se montrent qu’occasionnellement.


Un jour, j’étais dans la véranda en train de nourrir les cochons-d ‘Inde et j’ai vu une souris qui se précipitait vers le coin.  Je n’étais pas surpris qu’il y ait des souris qui habitent dans la maison ; il est normal que l’on trouve les souris à la campagne, surtout quand il y a des boites de nourriture de gerbille.
Un mois plus tard, l’été est arrivé et il a fallu mettre la cage des cochons-d ’Inde a la dépendance pour qu’elles puissent passer du bon temps au jardin. 
Avant de déménager les cochons-d ‘Inde j’ai décidé de trouver les souris et les mettre au jardin aussi !  J’ai cherché dans le sac dans lequel on stocke la nourriture et il y a deux trous qu’elles ont rongé pour obtenir les délices dedans.  Dans le sac, il y avait un nid fait par les souris.

Soudain, deux petits animaux ont couru très rapidement et se sont cachés au-dessous du clapier des cocons-d ’Inde. 
Je me suis résolu a attraper les souris !   Je me suis couche sur le sol à côté du clapier.   J’ai vu un petit visage et deux yeux qui me regardaient.  J’ai reconnu ce visage.  Les deux animaux n’étaient pas des souris.  Deux gerbilles étaient au sol en train de me regarder.  Elles n’étaient plus dans leur cage !

Donc, nous n’avions pas de souris ! J’ai découvert un petit trou dans le couvercle de leur cage a travers lequel les deux plus petites gerbilles avaient réussi à s’extirper et s’échapper
Elles vivaient une vie très heureuse sur le sol de la véranda avec beaucoup de nourriture à manger sans limite !

Il nous a fallu acheter une cage plus solide pour contenir les gerbilles !


(This post was originally published here in English.  This is not a direct translation of the English but a re-write)

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Green lights all the way

I don't believe that luck is anything other than chance.  It's like playing backgammon - you can get yourself into a position where almost every combination the dice fall in is positive, but you can never actually control how the dice are going to fall.

I was walking home from Liverpool Street station the other evening, and literally every crossing I changed to show a green man just as I walked up to it.  Every single one.  A bit like that annoying advert with James Corden, except I didn't ask anyone to "just call me Mr Green Light".

It wasn't my only stroke of luck during the day.  Earlier in the day, I'd been giving a serious announcement to my team in the office.  All standing around in a circle in the break-out space in the office, it was after I'd finished speaking the MD was talking that I realised that my phone wasn't on silent, that I was expecting a call and that my ringtone is currently the theme music from Strictly, starting with a bit "Hoooooooo!" noise at the beginning.  Even though the MD was talking, my attention was actually on my phone rather than her, willing it not to ring right at that moment.  Fortunately, it didn't.

Good luck must run out eventually.  Or more precisely, the random order in which good and bad things happen means that every run of good things is only going to be finite in length.  Like tossing a coin - every run of heads is going to be broken at some point.

I feel like there should be some metaphor here.  There isn't.  I was just struck by how many green lights I saw on the walk home the other evening. Nothing more.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Avoiding the obvious

Having a new house to sort out took away much of my free weekend time, and so I've not got through as many books this year as I would like to have done even though all the trips to Warrington gave me plenty of time on trains and in hotel rooms with nothing much else to do.

Hopefully in 2017 I should get a bit more reading done.  An upcoming new job is going to mean fewer train journeys, but a shorter commute is going to mean more time at home to while away the hours with a good book.

I've picked six books which I read in 2016(1)

So let's start at the bottom, shall we?(2)





Tales from the Dance Floor
Craig Revel Horwood

Don't be shocked that I read such things.  I think it's a mistake to presume that someone who reads a lot must read the highest literature.(3)  A lot of time spent on trains - and in a previous job, planes - makes me want something to keep the mind and the pages turning as time passes me by more slowly than normal.

I really rather enjoyed All Balls and Glitter(4), which was Craig Revel Horwood's previous autobiographical volume and so when I saw on Twitter that there was a follow-up I decided to hunt it down and use it to make a train journey disappear.  

It was actually harder to find that I thought it would be.  I had presumed that a new book by someone associated with the Strictly leviathan would be stacked near the door of every WHSmiths branch, especially at stations where people usually want something light and fluffy to read.(5)  I even went to Foyles to try to track it down, and spent quite some time going back and forth between the "Dance" and "Television" sections convinced that I must missed it somewhere on a shelf between the two.

Maybe I should've heard the sound of warning bells given how hard the book was to find but eventually I did the unthinkable and ordered it from Amazon.  I do use Amazon for many, many other things - yet I rarely buy books online.  

For me, it's nice to meander along the shelves and see the book before buying it.  How does it feel in my hand? How does it feel to flick through the pages?  I love cold, blue screens for doing research and reading short articles, but there's still nothing quite like a warm, yellow book to tell a story.

After a few pages, the first impression wasn't good.  It was obvious that the prose just didn't flow in the way the prose had done in the first volume.  The content wasn't bad - it certainly wasn't in the same category of drivel as a Dan Brown book, for instance(6) - but the way it was told felt like disjointed, uninteresting sentences falling one after the other like dominoes.  There was no change of pace, no pauses for contemplation and no dizzying whirlwind evenings played out on the page.  

All the moves were there, but there was no feeling in the stiff dance through the pages.  

Maybe he wrote it in a rush or maybe he was contractually obliged to write a second volume without real motivation to do so.  Either way, it was dangerous to have my expectations set so high. 



Spectacles.  A memoir.
Sue Perkins

Not all memoirs are bad; some are a joy to read.  I actually read this before the Craig Revel Horwood volume took away my trust in expectations and so I didn't really have many before I started reading.  

Unlike the previous book, this one was everywhere.  Every time I went into WHSmiths at Euston whilst waiting for the train to Warrington its white cover and striking portrait stared out at me.  But at twenty quid for the hardback, I wasn't so keen to rush in.  Eventually, when it was part of an offer I bought it and took it on the train with me.

Never have I smiled so much throughout a book.   I obviously knew of Sue Perkins before reading the book - and not just since Bake Off, although I do also love Bake Off(7) - and this isn't one of those autobiographies where people spill the beans on previous lovers to sell a few extra copies; it's much better than that and all the better for it. 

One moment, involving a bucket, made me splutter out loud on the 0930 Euston to Glasgow Central.  Read the book, and you'll know when you get there. Sometimes I should trust my gut and buy a book when I first see it rather than waiting an age to pick it up.  




SPQR
Mary Beard

I bought this book quite early.  Mary Beard is wonderful, and her previous books have been the most engaging and entertaining journeys to Ancient Rome I've ever taken.  But they were short.  And SPQR is not a short book.  I have a stack of books(8) I've not yet read and whenever I finish one I return to the shelf and select a new one to start reading.  Although there's no ordering to the books I select; I rarely select the one which has been on the shelf the longest and certainly never select it on those grounds alone.  Choosing a new book to read is like selecting a pair of socks.  It's a product of mood and feeling.  Where will I be going and what will I be doing?  

Such a long book on such a weighty subject never quite made it to the top of the pile and so it gathered quite a lot of dust before I finally decided to pick it up and get going.

I saw Mary Beard talking about the book at an event before I started reading it.   Whenever she talks, she is so engaging; the fact that her enthusiasm is so obviously real makes it heartwarming and contagious.  This wasn't the only time I'd seen Mary Beard talk, but as I sat there listening to her talk about why she started with Cicero and what she really thought of Rome's foundation myth I could feel the book on the shelf at home on the other side of London calling distantly to me.  I picked it up to start reading the next day.(9)

Mary Beard has a wonderful knack of presenting Rome as seen through the eyes of people rather than through the telescope of history.  The world she conjures up feels real and complete,  rendered even more imaginable by her reassuring reluctance to fill gaps in source material with unannounced guesswork. 

Just how the best celebrity memoirs avoid the lurid stories of kiss and tell, the Julio-Claudian Emperors' excesses aren't played for thrills here.  We all know they were pretty perverted in both senses of the word but this book shows the history of Ancient Rome to be so much more than Eastenders in togas.  This book is definitely going to be going into my roster of books I read time and time again and I an sure I'll discover something new each time.



What Belongs To You
Garth Greenwell


On one occassion, I arrived at Euston for my weekly trip up to Warrington and realised I'd forgotten to pick up a book from the pile and so needed to find something in WHSmiths.  This cover jumped out at me almost as much as the fact that the book didn't seem that long and so I could probably get into it on a train journey. (10) I wasn't aware of the short story which had been reworked into the first section of the book, and so had no idea what I was going to be reading.  

I certainly wasn't expecting the tale of a dysfunctional relationship between an ex-pat American living in Bulgaria and a local prostitute. 

It's certainly quite a gritty and grubby tale at times - I wouldn't recommend it as bedtime reading for your kids - but it does manage to draw two characters together and apart many times without any of the twists and turns feeling forced for dramatic purposes. (11) 

I did leave it with the lingering question though of whether this was actually a made up tale.  Either the author has a very good imagination or there's a little more to this tale than simple fiction. (12)

The Scarlet Gospels
Clive Barker

I read a lot, but I don't tend to read many book reviews and so quite often when there's a new book out by one of my favourite authors, the first time I am aware of it  is when I am buying it.

I have read The Hellbound Heart a few times and always thought that the Hellraiser films didn't do justice to the book.(13)  They took away the subtlety and replaced it with guts, gore and sex to increasing degrees as the film series rumbled on. The decline of the film series into nonsense almost stopped me from buying this book but Clive Barker has never let me down so far (14) and so I decided to pick it up from WHSmiths at Euston and give it a go.  

If inhumanity is presented constantly, then it ceases to shock and in their desire to be gorier and bloodier than before each of the films seemed to neglect to portray the backdrop of humanity against which the inhuman story was played out.  The story may quickly make its way to Hell but its footsteps always lead back to the real world. (15)

It would've been easy for Clive Barker to sit back and accept the royalties he's no doubt being paid for the continuing roster of films or to simply write something which continued the gore fest in increasingly ridiculous ways but it's nice to seem an author take their creation back with such grace and dexterity. (16)


The Railways
Simon Bradley

Some books have to sell themselves to me and some are just obviously one day going to end up sitting on my shelf waiting for me to pick them up and open them for the first time.  I walked past this book myriad times in various railway stations before finally buying it and getting around to reading it.  It was so obvious to me that I'd end up buying and reading this book that I didn't feel the need to rush into it; one day it would just find its way onto my bookshelf of its own accord. (17)

This book was pretty weighty, but thankfully split into relatively distinct sections so would lend itself quite easily to a chapter or two in bed of a Saturday morning before getting up to face the weekend.  I've always have a fascination with railways, as I've written about previously, and I'm often fearful of reading books on subjects I love.

I try to make my life as evidence-based as possible and a necessary part of that is that sometimes my views change when I get new information.  But being rational doesn't stop my heart from attaching itself to enjoyable beliefs.  I yearn for the days when I believed in Santa. (18)

So it's always risky to open up something you hold dear and allow someone to give you new information.  My love of railways felt pretty safe, though.  In fact the book was about trains much more than it was about the railways they run on but it's entertaining to imagine yourself rattling along locked in a compartment with strangers who may be about to try to rob you or try to fleece money from you.  The Beeching map does get a reprint; and at the time I was yearning for more detail but sometimes the greatest pleasure in life can be achieved by avoiding the temptation of the obvious.




And so there you have it, it seems that I like to read things which avoid the obvious and aren't lurid.  Who knew I was so sophisticated in my taste..?







Footnotes

1.  Even though my reading time was limited I did read many more than six books.  Over sixty in fact.

2. I wrote this as the kind of thing CRH would say as a judge on Strictly but then became concerned it sounded homophobic.  Which it's not meant to be.  Maybe I should take it out in case people hate me for it?

3. I've read a couple of French novels, a book on advanced number theory and some poetry this year too, you know so it's not all been trashy nonsense.  Although there has been quite a lot of trashy nonsense in there, I guess. I'm not ashamed.

4. Best. Title. Ever.

5. I've never understood why it's presumed that those people getting on a train want something light to read, but those people getting on planes want something very thinky and business-oriented given the usual selection at airports.  I prefer "light and fluffy" on both.

6. I once started reading a Dan Brown book at an airport and it was _so_  fucking awful that I had to throw it away before getting on the place.  Fourteen hours to Tokyo with nothing to do was better than reading that drivel.  Sorry about my language by the way, but that's what you get for reading the footnotes.

7. On the BBC obviously.  It won't be the same on Channel 4.  

8. Anyone who's ready earlier posts will note that my time is now split between London and the countryside so for the pedants (and who else reads footnotes other than pedants?) I actually have two piles of books, one in each place.

9.  I am starting to worry that this isn't actually true, but for the purposes of dramatic narrative let's presume it is.  It was certainly pretty soon afterwards in any case.

10. I find that shorter books tend to have faster starts - I guess their whole pace tends to be quicker - so they are easier to get into on a train where I need something engaging straight away to take my mind off the journey.  It's the same reason I tend to start reading a new book just before a flight, so by the time the flight comes around I'm already invested in the narrative and so can close myself in the book more easily.

11. I am away that - if indeed this story is fiction and not autobiographical - the entire thing is made up for dramatic purposes.

12. I am actually quite glad this question hasn't been answered.  There was a great book called "A Million Little Pieces" which was presented as fact, and then exposed as fiction and the whole episode rather ruined the enjoyment of the book for me. A  little mystery is not a bad thing.


13. Given how few films I have seen in my life, I realise that it's odd that the Hellraiser films are there on the list.  But they are, and I rather enjoyed the first one, although I still preferred the version of the story in print.

14. I'm trying to think of this is actually 100% true.  I certainly can't think of a book of his I've been disappointed with at the time of writing. If I do think of one, I'll update this footnote accordingly.

15. I am aware that footsteps made by someone walking forward lead forward rather than backwards, but you know what I mean...

16. I thought it'd be fun to put in a little note at this point about whether Clive Barker is left-handed or right-handed.  The internet won't tell me, and although he doesn't appear on the many lists of "famous left-handed people" I read through I don't want to presume that he is therefore right-handed.  For some reason, he seems like the kind of person who would be left-handed, doesn't he?

17.  I mean here that I would eventually buy the book.  This isn't a euphemistic way to say that I stole the book. I most emphatically did not steal it.  I bought it from the little shop at Warrington Bank Quay station.

18. A recent conversation with my mother revealed that she doesn't think I ever believed in Santa, and come to think of it I don't remember a time when I believed in Santa either, but maybe I would be too little to remember it.  Anyway, my point isn't specifically about Santa so this doesn't really matter.  But then again, I guess if it did really matter, I'd have written it up there in the main text and not down here in the footnotes.




Thursday, 15 December 2016

La mort




I don't dwell too long on the thoughts of mortality which seem to come my way so much more frequently than they did when I was younger.  I don't consider myself old, yet I have reached the point in life where the remainder of my life no longer seems to stretch out in front of me like the endless path beyond the horizon I would amble along in my youth.

Recently, amongst the very old and gnarled apple trees in the garden, we planted a young quince tree.  It's about eight feet tall, and not yet fruiting.  It will get there eventually, but I won't see it reach the size and character of its neighbours even though I hope some day to be able to candy its quinces for Christmas.

When you're young, death for most people is a mercifully distant thing.  You know it exists and you see the impact it has on people around you, but until it starts to creep closer towards you, I don't think you fully understand just how final the end is when it comes.

Until the past few years, I'd only really seen one death close enough to me to full its full impact.  There had been bereavements of which I'd been aware but the first funeral I ever went to was that of a close family member.  I'd only ever felt distant tremors before, and now the firm ground on which I stood was being shaken by something much closer to home.  In the past few years, the reaper has appeared much closer to home on a couple of occasions (written about previously here and here).

The more times you see death strike people down close to you the more you realise that it really does come to us all in the end.  There is no avoiding it.  Every one of our paths will run out eventually.  Every one of us will one day take their very final step.

I've never thought of death as a subject to be avoided.  Of course I'd avoid it around people who've recently suffered a bereavement but only for fear of interrupting their grieving process not for fear of the subject itself.   There's a taboo surrounding death which has fallen away from subjects such as faith, race and sex in recent years.  But despite the shift towards a more open and liberal society in recent years, it seems that there's still a curtain hung around the subject of death which few dare to pull back for the world to see.

I don't find the fact that we'll all die someday as worthy of mourning; I'll let others mourn me when I'm gone rather than spending the finite time before then lamenting the inevitable.  I see the realisation that life is finite as a positive motivator to spend life well.  It's a limited resource and it seems a shame to waste it.  So let's remember those who have gone fondly, be sorrowful that we no longer get to make new memories but remember that it's not disrespectful to continue to live a full life when someone close to you is gone.  

When my time finally comes, I want to look back with as few regrets as possible.  
Living life well is the only way to make that possible.



Friday, 9 December 2016

Trying and failing to write a story



When some people see a crowd of dancers moving in time with each other, they are forced onto their feet by an urge to join in.    They start to move slowly in time and gradually pick up the steps as they go.  They watch the dancers around them and modify their own body movements to match as closely as they can those around them.  They become part of the thing they enjoyed to watch and so come to enjoy it even more.

I’d never do that; I wouldn’t dance in public if you paid me a million pounds.  Genuinely.
But I’m not immune to seeing something happen and deciding I’d like to get involved; whenever I read something I am pulled by an urge to pick up a pen and try to turn some thoughts into words.

I’ve always enjoyed writing and I write a lot.  I keep handwritten journals which I update most days.  Not for any reason other than the act of putting pen to paper and building forms with words.   It’s a challenge to take the ideas which live and breathe in my head and see if I can record those ideas on the page.  To see whether I can lay cold, flat words onto the page in a such that when I read them back, they jump from the page and play out my memories as colourfully as before.

I write blog posts too. I’m writing one right now, in fact.  And blog posts are about the only place I write using a keyboard; I still do most of my writing – cards, notes and even professional notes at work – with a fountain pen. Those disposable fountain pens you can now buy have helped to keep me away from succumbing to the scourge that is the Bic biro; I can still flourish my g’s and y’s at the end of a line with a swirl without having to carry a pack of ink cartridges around with me.

My writing thus far as almost always been relatively short.  In a blog post, for instance, I tend to take a small number of ideas, toss them into the air with abandon and then attempt to catch them one by one and bring them back together all within the space of a couple of paragraphs as though I grabbed three clementines from the Christmas fruit bowl and flung them into the air only to catch them nimbly and plonk them back amongst the walnuts and dates.  Juggling clementines rather than throwing and catching them is more demanding of dexterity, and the more clementines you try to juggle, the higher you throw them and the longer you try to do it for, the harder the juggling gets.  The temptation to let one of them drop or catch them all and put them down becomes greater the longer you go on; especially if you’re only used to juggling three pieces of fruit for only a few seconds at a time.

And so when a friend asked if I’d like to contribute something to a written project she was curating, I was apprehensive.   I have never written anything for publication before and wasn’t sure that I should make my first attempt at juggling in front of an audience.  I did take up the challenge though, and although I never got my work across the finish line, the journey to that point was interesting enough to make the expedition worthwhile.

I held ten thousand words as my target and I nervously watched the word counter creep up in Word as I typed.  Some of the chapters started on paper on train journeys and in hotel rooms and got typed up after the fact, and some chapters were born digitally and never knew the freedom of ink on paper.  I got to nine thousand words before feeling the story was told and I should stop.  But the work was far from done.

I have never written fiction before, other than song lyrics and the creative writing exercises back when I was at school so I had no choice other than to apply the same rules I apply when writing factually.   I’d start with the story.  The first priority for me was to get all of the story told.  It didn’t matter whether the prose was terrible or whether points were laboured with repetitive vocabulary; I wanted simply to get the story told.

Placeholders throughout the text set instructions for future drafts..

*INSERT GREAT OPENING LINE HERE...

*WORK OUT HOW QUICKLY A LEAKY PLUG WILL DRAIN A FULL BATH

I was done with the first draft, at least.


But then came the hardest part – to take the plodding, pedestrian verbiage and turning it into a string of imagery-laden sentences of which I could be proud. I set myself the goal to avoid wastage in my wordage.   There should not be a word which didn’t carry meaning.  Not a single word should stand which wouldn’t impact the narrative should it be struck out.   I hacked away all the meat from the bones whilst watching the word count fall, shoring up any gaps I left on the way.

Eight thousand. Seven thousand. Six thousand.  The words slipped away without a struggle

I became ruthless with the fluff I’d written.  The entire subplot about the plant pot was carved out and thrown away; along with the pointless back story for the man who worked at the pub.  The words fell away like the deep vermillion leaves of autumn, forgotten and rotting to brown in a gutter.  What remained was stark and bare; shake it hard and there was not a single leaf left to fall.  Every word had purpose and reading through the story, the plot told hurtled like a freight train towards the conclusion.  I had told the story I wanted to tell, and nothing more.

But in my recklessness, I had thrown away some necessary distraction in favour of a soulless trudge towards boring resolution of plot which hadn’t been given chance to simmer.  I had stripped the burlesque dancer of feathers and fans which allowed only snatched glimpses of a nipple, and left a naked person standing there.  Nobody wants to see that.  And so I had to find some feathers and wave them around a bit to keep my secrets deeper into the act.

And so I set about adding smoke and mirrors.  Shops gained names, characters who passed by in the street gained height and sometimes hats and the world of the story became full again with the sounds and smells which serve not to progress the story but to cradle it as it finds its feet and marches forwards.  Plot points were left unresolved until slightly later and mysteries in the story given longer to smoulder away against the mind rather than snatching them away as soon as they began to burn.

The prose I produced was richer but something was still troubling me.  It took me a while to get there and many times reading through what I’d written to punch my fist through the chest and grab the heart of the trouble.

I had managed to conjure up images with the words and managed to string the words together in such a way that I enjoyed reading each sentence.  The story I had tried to convey had come across as bright as day and as dark as night with at least fifty shades between.  But I’d missed something much more fundamental; the story I was trying to tell was a really crap idea in the first place.


*INSERT BRILLIANT CLOSING LINE HERE









Saturday, 26 November 2016

The Trouble With Toilets

I have no idea how many times I've been to the toilet in my life.  But I'm going to suggest it's probably upwards of one hundred thousand times.  And yet it's something we never talk about.  When you watch TV or films, how often does a character say "I'm just popping to the loo", unless it's in order to remove them from the scene for dramatic purposes?

And yet we all do it.  Even though I have no direct evidence, I'm pretty sure that even The Queen uses a toilet.

But so shrouded by societal secrecy is the whole process of going to the toilet that the insides of toilets can remain something of a mystery.  I was was astonished, for instance, to discover that an adult female friend of mind had never seen a urinal.  Logic says to me "but why would she have seen one?" but the idea that something I've used pretty much every day of my life since a very young age would be such a mysterious object to someone else fascinated me.

In one of my previous jobs, the general manager of the company one day got a comfy chair for his office.  One of the women in the office walked in and said "that chair is just like the one in the toilets".  None of the men in the company were at all aware that the ladies toilets had a comfy chair in; there was no comfy chair in the men's toilets.  From that moment on, I had images in my mind that whilst the men's toilet was rather functional, although entirely sufficient in that function, the ladies toilet was an oasis of relaxing calm.  Probably with floaty drapes and scented candles to go with the comfy chair.

I guess my point here isn't so much that I think ladies' toilets really are more luxurious than men's toilets.  Rather my point is that I have no idea what the inside of a ladies' toilet would look like and so my observations on toilets are only the product of spending many minutes - and pennies - in the gents.

When going to the toilet in a restaurant or pub or whatever, the first issue you face is what lies beyond the door.  Is there just one single toilet in a room or is the door the way into a group of toilets, each with their own little room?  The only way to find out is to push the door.  But what if it's just one of those toilets with just one in there.  Second only to the utter horror of walking in on someone who's sitting on the loo is having to stand outside having wiggled the lock and having to exchange awkward glances with the person as they come out and search for the person who was wiggling the handle whilst they were doing their business.  Pushing the door is fraught with risk.

Once in, of course, the situation is then clear.  Except if you find yourself in a two-door toilet.



This has sprung up recently in many places; the toilet where you go through one door, and there's a second door into the toilet itself but only one toilet in the facility.  Which door do you lock in this situation?  Also - what is the point of the inner door.

My view on the point of the inner door can be summarised by a description of a toilet I find terrifying in a bar in Seattle, which I've outlined below



Ostensibly, this is just a single room toilet, but it plays to what I believe to be one of the most fearful experiences.  The experience of sitting on the loo more than arm's length away from the door.  And in this room, the door is a LONG way out of reach.  So I wonder whether the inner door is a kind of lavatorial comfort blanket within arms reach that you can lean against should the outer door start to waggle.

Worse still, actually, is the one below, which is a workplace toilet at one of the places I worked



You can't even see the door from the toilet here.  Buy maybe worse, the layout of the room is such that when you first walk in, it's not clear whether there's just one toilet in there, or a row of them - so your instinct isn't to turn and lock the door as soon as you get inside.  And if you're anything like me, that leads you to wonder whether you locked the door at all when you're in a - how do I put this - inconvenient position for getting to the door quickly to check it's actually locked.

But what if you can't even see the cubicle door right in front of you?



What's particularly disturbing about this toilet - another workplace toilet - requires a little explanation.  In line with eco-friendly policies the toilet lights come in when you walk in and set off a motion sensor and then turn themselves off again when the sensor hasn't detected motion for a particular period of time.  All perfectly sensible so far.

Except if you don't think about where you put the sensor.  I've shown the position of the sensor with a yellow star, and the cubicle doors go from floor to ceiling.  One thing I do like about British toilets - is that the cubicle doors close fully.  It's very unnerving for a British person to use one of those American toilets where you can be sitting there and notice that there's a half inch gap all the way around the door.  But that's not the point.

But the point is that once one is attending to one's duty in the cubicle, one is out of view of the motion sensor.  I'm not sure whether the limited jiggling possible whilst on the toilet would set off the motion sensor anyway; but it certainly won't detect motion with a solid wooden door in the way.  So that means that there's a very good chance that, presuming it's not a busy time of day for the toilets, the lights can go off whilst you're sitting there.  And you'll notice from the picture that two of the cubicles don't have windows at all, meaning that the only thing you can do is sit there until someone else walks in and turns the lights back on.  At which point, you'd walk out of the cubicle revealing to them that you've been sitting on the loo in the dark.  Or can you attempt to complete your use of the facilities in pitch black and hope that when you emerge from the cubicle, set off the sensor and get blinded by the renewed light, you've tucked yourself back in sufficiently.

Nobody wants to be suddenly illuminated  to find they're not properly dressed.

Sunday, 24 July 2016

What makes a concert so good..?

I've been to many concerts over the years.  In fact, before starting to write this I tried to work out how many I'd been to. I couldn't even count how many times I've seen the Pet Shop Boys previously...

I suppose that exposes me as a bit of a fan.  Which is true.  I've seen them doing small gigs - including doing the tour for the album "Release" when they went all guitar-y.  And I've seen them doing Arena things.  They've been camp.  There've been lots of lots.  And it's always been loud.

And then there was "Inner Sanctum".

Not quite a tour, "Inner Sanctum" is for four nights only at the Royal Opera House.  Es Devlin again coming up with the stage design and promise of something unique.  Something "special".

And so it was.

I don't know why it was so good.  It's entirely possible that a combination of my mood, and the level of expectation meant I was going to enjoy it.  But even once we got a few songs in, I knew this would be a gig it'd take me a long time to forget.

We were sitting in the front row of the balcony, directly facing onto the stage.  A clear view, no silhouette'd heads bobbing around in front of us.  And what a view.  I'd never been inside the Royal Opera House before, and it's certainly quite a venue.  So much gold and so many lights.  Fabulous, you may say.

Anyway, on with the show.  It was oomph-y in the way that the Pet Shop Boys should be.  Adding a few extra musicians lifting the percussion tracks from sequencers and placed some of the rhythm into the hands of two fantastic drummers.  The sound was crystal clear.  No muddy merging of bass and drums.  No fading of vocals into synth lines.  It was clear and sparkly but with a bass running understand which made your stomach throb.

And then there was the set list.  A song from almost every album.  And not the obvious choices at that.  For instance, "In The Night" which - I'm informed - had never been performed live before, despite being the best part of 30 years old.  And in this show, given a driving beat which lifted it from being an extended remix of the Clothes Show theme and into a driving anthem which could've been written yesterday.

And then there were the lights.  I've seen light shows before. I've seen impressive lightshows before.  But this was on a different level.  Photographs don't do justice the way the lasers were used and just how spectacular they looked.

I've been to many concerts.  But this was the best.  Genuinely.